Big Tent Anthropology

Anthropologists are at it again: engaged in fruitless and unproductive arguments about whether the discipline is a “science.”  The furor revolves around proposed changes to the American Anthropological Association’s mission statement:

The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies public understanding of humankind in all its aspects, through This includes, but is not limited to, archeological, biological, ethnological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.

When I first read about these proposed changes, I will confess to being surprised that the AAA ever referred to the discipline as “the science of anthropology.”  There are aspects of anthropology that are clearly “scientific,” in the strict sense of the word, but others that are not.  I see no need to label the entire discipline a “science.”  We are after all talking about labels and little else.

There are of course hardliners who make this a bipolar debate.  Some insist that anthropology is or should aspire to be “science.”  Others insist that anthropology is not and should not aspire to be “science.”  Does it really matter?  I think not.

I came to anthropology because its big tent includes four subdisciplinary foci which make it possible to piece together something like an adequate history of humanity.  My particular interest — a genealogy of metaphysics or religions — could not be told without substantial inputs from all four.

This genealogy begins with the evolution of a brain-mind that naturally generates supernatural concepts and continues with archaeological evidence of those concepts in action.  Brains and minds do not exist in isolated boxes, but evolve and develop in cultural contexts, and do not exist in any meaningful way outside of culture.  None of this is possible outside of language.

There you have it: four-field anthropology is a logical grouping regardless of whether one wants to call the discipline a “science” or not.  I don’t really see how it matters.

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  1. Pingback: Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding | Neuroanthropology

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